Letter to my Ouma

The call came at 2:17pm on Thursday. “Ouma had a really bad setback. She probably won’t make it through the night. If you want to say your final goodbye, you should come”

The hospital is big and open. The air was heavy and it was hot inside the waiting room of the ICU. My chest tightens and I scramble to find my anxiety meds in my bag. Shaking hands. It dissolves under my tongue. I can breath again. The doctor comes in- explaining things and it goes over my head. I look at my aunts face- she is really worried and my breaths becomes shorter again. Why is it so hot in here?

Being in the hospital the past week, the call has not been entirely unexpected, though she did so well after the operation and she was so alert and responsive. She even got discharged that same day. Then the setback. And now I am looking at her in the AICU and mumbling goodbyes. I looked inside seeing my mom and my aunt bending over her. We go in two at a time and I go in last. Alone. I drive home. Confused.

Friday morning. The first rays of light began creeping through my blinds but it felt like I have not slept at all. I am to scared to look at my phone. I read my mom’s message- “critical and unstable” and wonder what that really means. It sounds more like something you can use to describe me on a deadline than a sick grandmother. I got dressed, got into the car and drive to Kempton. Autopilot.

I got to the AICU again. This time there is no rules it seems. We can go in. No one chasing you out and no one telling you about washing your hands. Go say your final goodbyes. Doctors mumbling. Explaining. It goes in but I struggle to understand. How on earth did I become so stupid overnight? I Google “multiple organ failure in the elderly”  and I smoke and look at the sun. Now it is time to go in.

As I walk in all I can hear is machines. It immediately calms me down, the sound of the ventilator and the beep of the heart monitor. It is so hot in her room, yet her hand is ice cold. I look at her and kept thinking that I must be mistaken and that she is going to get up saying that the joke is on me this time and she is not dying.

I sit and hold her hand until it becomes warm. Her skin is grey, pale and blotchy and she look so tiny in the bed. I look at her fingernails- painted a light shade of pink. Her hair still soft and grey with a little bit of a curl.

I sat there staring at her. How many times as a child did she dry my tears with her apron? Made me cool drink or let me help with supper. She laughed a lot and always asked me to make her tea, even though I make the worst tea imaginable. She loved my cooking and the fact that I have my own chickens.

All I hear is her shallow breathing through the ventilator and looking at her hand in mine and a still, tiny body, and I swallowed the lump rising up from the pit of my stomach. My eyes burn.

I stayed there. She was slipping away- no brain activity and organs failing. I heard the doctor saying “active stage of dying” and wondered again what the fuck that means. Dying now comes in stages?

My cousin arrived and we hugged each other. We looked at each other with disbelief and start chatting. Telling stories about when we were younger and how we use to play on the farm. My brother came in too and we stood there together in our grief. Scared that they will take her off adrenalin.

But she wasn’t quite ready to leave us that morning. I stayed with her until I could not anymore. I kissed her forehead three times and ask her to send my grandfather my regards, and to tell him that I still miss him.

But I was nervous leaving. Since I had said everything I wanted to say to my grandmother over the past few days, I don’t know why I felt so strongly about being there at the very end.  I think part of it had to do with wanting her not to die alone, but also to observe and tell her story.

Those last moments of goodbyes will forever be etched in the creases of my mind. The sun in a bright blue sky, the cold wind outside, the smell of death, constant alarm of the heart machine; methodic and seemingly in sync with the constant back-and-forth motion of nurses pushing beds through the corridors.

And those last few moments….

The afternoon sky with a big orange sun.

The image of my sister through the large AICU door crying.

The three of us sitting on the grass looking at each other.

The kisses on a dying woman’s forehead.

Ouma. I will always love you. And I carry you in my DNA and the way I live my life. I carry your stories in my mind and your memories in my heart.

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